Many are hoping elections end violence between Muslims and Christians.
BY KRISTA LARSON
The Associated Press
BANGUI, Central African Republic – Central African Republic went ahead with a presidential runoff vote Sunday that many hope will solidify a tentative peace after more than two years of sectarian fighting left untold thousands dead and forced nearly 500,000 people to flee to neighboring countries.
Armored U.N. personnel carriers roamed the streets of the capital, Bangui, as residents headed to the polls on foot and by motorcycle not long after sunrise. Some 2,000 U.N. peacekeepers are deployed in the capital while 8,000 others are trying to secure the vote in the largely anarchic provinces.
Sunday’s vote was absent the gunfire heard during earlier balloting, though many complained their names weren’t on the list at their polling station while others were turned away for lack of photo identification.
Residents set aside painful memories of the chaos that intensified in late 2013 when Christian militia fighters known as the anti-Balaka attacked Bangui, unleashing cycles of retaliatory violence with mostly Muslim Seleka fighters. At the height of the violence, Muslim civilians bore the wrath of vengeance-seeking mobs that killed and dismembered victims in the streets.
The conflict at the time was a political dispute over who would lead Central African Republic, but it divided communities among religious fault lines: Hundreds of mosques and churches were destroyed, interreligious marriages unraveled. A new spasm of violence late last year effectively barricaded most of Bangui’s remaining Muslims inside the PK5 neighborhood for several months, while scores of homes were razed in the Christian neighborhoods surrounding the enclave.
On Sunday, voters chose between two former prime ministers — both Christians promising to unite the country and bring the peace people here desperately want. Front-runner Anicet Georges Dologuele received about 24 percent in the first round and also was endorsed by the third-place finisher.
Whoever wins will face the enormous task of trying to exert their authority throughout a country where heavily armed rebel groups still control large swaths of territory. The next president also will be tasked with stamping out the impunity that has long existed in Central African Republic, a country where more presidents have come to power through coups than democratic elections since independence from France in 1960.
“Everything has a beginning and an end,” said Noel Poutou, 74, a lifelong resident of the PK5 neighborhood, dressed in a deep green traditional Muslim tunic and white prayer hat. “For me, this is the end of the crisis. Everyone here has lost loved ones and friends. I ask God to bring peace so that people can forget and become a family here again.”